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Butler vs. Connecticut is Fitting End to Unpredictable Season

Posted on April 03, 2011 by Dean Hybl

Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack have led Butler to back-to-back NCAA Tournament Championship Games.

What happens when you get a second crack at a “once in a lifetime” moment? Well, the Butler University Bulldogs will find out Monday night when the unlikeliest of super teams returns to the NCAA Championship Game for the second straight year.

Anyone who follows college basketball even a little knows that the Bulldogs went toe-to-toe with Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke Blue Devils in the 2010 title game and came a rimmed out half court shot away from claiming the national title.

Now, after defeating another mid-major Cinderella in VCU in the national semifinals, the Bulldogs are back on the main stage. This time they face the University of Connecticut and two-time national championship coach Jim Calhoun.

Interestingly, what both teams have in common is that for portions of the 2011 season both squads were looking more like they might meet in the NIT than in the NCAA Championship Game.

After a hot early start, Connecticut lost four of their final five regular season games and sank to the bottom half of the Big East standings. As a result, they had to win an unprecedented five games in five days to win the Big East Tournament.

At one point during the season Butler was 14-9 overall and 6-5 in conference play and didn’t look like they would have any shot at another run to the title game.

However, the Bulldogs won their final seven regular season games and then claimed the Horizon League Tournament title to secure a return trip to the NCAA Tournament.

While the Big East Tournament run by Connecticut raised their tournament seeding to a number three spot and got them some respect in bracket pools across the country, the Bulldogs didn’t have quite the same experience.

Who Will Win the NCAA Men's Basketball Title?

  • Butler Bulldogs (57%, 4 Votes)
  • Connecticut Huskies (43%, 3 Votes)

Total Voters: 7

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Though you could argue that being seeded as high as an eighth seed was partly a result of their reputation, the tournament committee didn’t do the Bulldogs any favors with their first round matchup. Facing Colonial Athletic Association Champion Old Dominion, which had edged VCU in the conference tournament final, Butler needed a last second basket by Matt Howard to advance to the second round.

They then recaptured some of the magic from a year ago by upsetting top seed Pittsburgh in one of the strangest finishes in tournament history. Both teams committed an away from the basket foul in the last two seconds that seemed to give the game to the other team. Fortunately for Butler, their mistake occurred first and was trumped by Pittsburgh.

Meanwhile, Connecticut was quietly advancing through the tournament with wins over Bucknell and fellow Big East squad Cincinnati.

In the Sweet 16, Butler withstood Wisconsin while Connecticut overcame a partisan crowd to defeat San Diego State.

Despite now reaching back-to-back Final Fours, 34-year-old Brad Stevens sometimes still looks like the kid who found the candy store.

The Elite Eight provided a stiff test for both squads. Butler needed overtime to defeat Florida while Connecticut escaped against Arizona.

Neither team had an easy time in the NCAA semifinals, but as has been the case in recent weeks, both teams made the play at the end to win the game.

While much of the credit for Connecticut’s run is given to having a veteran superstar in Kemba Walker, Butler also has a pair of proven veterans who have been major reasons for their success. Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard were key reasons for the tournament run in 2010 and are the undisputed leaders for Butler.

What is strikingly different about Connecticut and Butler is their head coaches.

Connecticut is guided by a 68-year-old general who has been a head college basketball coach since 1972, won more than 850 games and led his squad to the NCAA Tournament 22 times.  He has advanced to the Final Four on four occasions and will be looking for his third title.

Jim Calhoun is known for being a driven and sometimes ruthless leader and in recent years has been the subject of an NCAA investigation. He will have to sit out three conference games next season as a result of an NCAA ruling earlier this year.

Conversely, Butler is guided by a 34-year old who wasn’t born when Calhoun became the head coach at Northeastern and who was working for Eli Lilly and Company before deciding in 2000 that he wanted to be a basketball coach.

After serving as an assistant at Butler for seven seasons, he was promoted to head coach in 2007 and over the last four years has compiled a 117-24 record and reached the NCAA Tournament all four years. He has made Butler the first team from the State of Indiana to reach back-to-back Final Fours, which is quite an accomplishment considering the storied history of basketball in the state.

Stevens doesn’t seem to have a surly bone in his body and instead often spouts a wide grin that would look fitting on a kid who just found the candy store (which he sort of has). He often chest bumps his players to celebrate victories and in two years of Final Four pressure has displayed a composure that seems well beyond his years.

68-year-old Jim Calhoun is a striking contrast to the youthful exhuberance of Brad Stevens.

When Calhoun left Northeastern, from the North Atlantic Conference, to take the Connecticut job in 1986 after having led NU to five NCAA Tournaments (but never past the second round) in six years, it is likely that one reason was because he knew it would be nearly impossible for a school like Northeastern to ever really compete on the national stage. At that time, there is little doubt that he was correct.

Fast forward ahead 25 years and Brad Stevens is proving that in the modern era of college basketball it is suddenly possible for a school from a mid-major conference to become a prominent national player.

Butler is only the 13th team since the NCAA Tournament expanded in 1985 to reach consecutive Final Fours and one of only six teams since 1990 to reach the title game in consecutive years.

Interestingly, despite his amazing resume, Calhoun has never accomplished either of those things.

When Connecticut and Butler meet on the court Monday night history will be made. Either Connecticut will become the seventh team to win three NCAA Championships or Butler will become the smallest school since LaSalle in 1954 to win the men’s basketball championship.

Regardless, the outcome is not what was expected when the tournament started, but now seems fitting given the unpredictable nature of the 2011 season.

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